Shutdowns Counter The Idea Of A World-Wide Web

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First, it was Egypt. At the height of the protest against the Mubarak regime in 2011, authorities shut the Internet down.

This week, it was Syria. Just as rebel forces there were making big gains, someone pulled the plug on the Internet, and Syria went dark.

Service was restored on Saturday, but Andrew McLaughlin, former White House adviser on technology policy, expects we'll see more of this.

"The pattern seems to be that governments that fear mass movements on the street have realized that they might want to be able to shut off all Internet communications in the country, and have started building the infrastructure that enables them to do that," McLaughlin says.

The key to shutting down the Internet is building that infrastructure in such a way that the Internet service is provided by a government-owned company, subject to government orders. You could also have the service providers housed in facilities where the government could shut off the power. Technically, it's not hard.

It is, however, controversial.

International Search For A Solution

The whole idea of the global Internet has always been that it's an ungoverned space, where people around the world can share information freely. That principle will be challenged next week at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.

Among the agenda items at the conference is the notion that governments should have the right to control the Internet.

"There are proposals on the table from certain nations that are actively calling for the right to be able to shut down their Internet infrastructure in the case of threats to national security or whatever," says Leslie Daigle, the chief technology officer at the Internet Society, an international nonprofit devoted to keeping the Internet open.

Next week's meeting will be hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations body that is pressing for a larger role in Internet governance. Andrew McLaughlin, the former White House adviser, said some authoritarian governments see the ITU as an ally.

"The Russian government, for example, [is] asking the ITU to adopt new treaty language that would essentially bless its efforts to control the Internet for highly vague reasons like decency and territorial integrity," he said.

Or, in cases like Syria, the control would be for security reasons.

Shared Control Versus National Autonomy

Daigle said what is at stake here is the principle of a global Internet, as opposed to separate national Internets that individual governments can manipulate.

"We certainly fully respect the right of nations to protect their citizens," she said. "But, at the same time, I think that we wouldn't see the full potential of the Internet if we drive towards imposing national boundaries on the Internet."

The last international telecommunications conference like this was held in 1988 — well before the modern Internet age.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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